Favorite Holidays

            As a child with a vivid imagination, I loved all holidays. The Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny and Santa were all real to me. Even when I should have been well past the age of belief, there was something about beings that would drop into my house and leave me gifts that kept me transfixed.

            The Tooth Fairy was a cheapskate as she only left a dime or nickel. Even back in the early 1950s that wouldn’t have bought much of anything. On top of that my father exacted a toll, a donation to the church on Sunday: a dime every week. So if the fairy left a dime, the entire amount became a tithe. I hated it.

            I figured out fairly early that there was no Easter Bunny, but I kept up the act, hoping that if I pretended to believe my parents would still hide baskets of candy about the house. Because I have a younger sister, the “Bunny” continued to come well into my teens.

            Christmas was always a special time. Tension in the house eased. There were fewer fights and punishments exacted. Perhaps it was the effect of the colorful decorations, the anticipation of opening gifts or knowing that the reason we celebrated was because of Christ’s birth. No matter the reason, the house was a bit happier and therefore easier to live in.

            We lived in Beavercreek, Ohio when I was in fourth grade. I still believed that Santa flew all over the world leaving gifts for good little girls and boys. I wasn’t the best child as I often fought with my siblings, usually over stupid stuff like who should pick up all the army men or who was responsible for cleaning my sister’s half of the room. I sulked a lot and found solace in the outdoors, away from family and all the troubles that came with them.

            On the last day of school before Christmas break, my class had a party. I don’t remember the details, but because I was not well liked, I doubt that I received any cards or gifts. However, sometime during the course of the party the subject of Santa came up. When my classmates insisted he was imaginary, for some reason, me, the normally mute child, spoke up defending him. I still recall the guffaws, the humiliation.

            I cried all the way home. My mother attempted to console me, but she only confirmed what my classmates had said. She was an impatient woman, so by the time we got home, she was angry at my inability to accept reality. I was sent to my room.

            When my dad got home from work, he tried talking to me. He explained that the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny and Santa were all imaginary beings created to entertain little kids. And that I was no longer a little kid. Nothing he said could change my mind.

            After dinner reports of Santa’s journey came on the television. Ah, ha! I was right. There was his sleigh, over Russia. Europe. The Atlantic Ocean. He flew over the eastern United States and was heading toward Ohio. By this time was siblings had gone to bed. My mom as well.

            My dad stayed up with me, watching the night sky for Santa. Somewhere around midnight, when the television went off the air, my dad told me to go to bed. I refused, insisting I needed to stay up so I could catch Santa coming in our house. We had no chimney, but that didn’t dissuade me.

            Eventually I was told to go to bed, and when my dad commanded, you had to obey or face the consequences. I don’t remember much else of that night, but when I got in in the morning and saw gifts under the tree, I tried to believe, but when I was shown store receipts, I was shattered.

            Christmas never held the same joy for me until I had kids of my own. We hid gifts, I’d sneak out the back window and creep around the side of the house so I could go shopping without the kids knowing. I’d pretend to be ill and lock myself in my bedroom, turn on a radio and wrap as many gifts as I could.

            After the kids were asleep, Mike and I would haul everything out. I loved the multicolor packages, the glittering lights, the homemade and store-bought ornaments, the tinsel on the tree. I loved the music, the decorations that Mike spread around, the nativity scene that took center stage in our front room.

            I loved the suspense, waiting until morning when the kids would creep out into the front room and shout, “Santa’s been here.” Mike would get up first to get a fire going in our wood-burning stove. Once it was a bit more comfortable, I’d join the family. We took turns opening gifts, a tradition from Mike’s family. It was wonderful. The looks of joy when it was something they wanted, the disappointment when it was socks or underwear. All the while Christmas music played in the background., reminding us over and over that we were celebrating the Lord’s birth.

            After opening a few gifts each we’d get dressed and go to church. Oh! The church would be so beautiful! Bright colors and poinsettia plants everywhere. Music of joy and comfort and redemption throughout the Mass. A homily seeking peace. Prayers lifted in community. It was, and still is, marvelous.

            Mike’s family has a traditional breakfast, so after church we’d go to his parent’s house for sausage, eggs, and something they called sticky rolls. There’d be gifts to open there as well. Eventually we’d return home, open the rest of the gifts, then watch a new movie.

            In the late afternoon we’d go to my parent’s house for more gifts and dinner. Most of the time my siblings came, filling the house with conversation.

            It made for a long day, but because everyone was on good behavior, (most of the time), things were quite nice.

            The one tradition that we kept up until our kids went off to college was the hiding of the Easter baskets. Mike always found the best spots, but the kids were clever and so didn’t take long to find their baskets under a blanket or stuffed behind a cabinet. The kids hid their candy, making sure that their stash was kept private. Even now as empty-nesters Mike and I love our Easter baskets.

            I think what I like most about those holidays was the good cheer. My family was not peaceful. It was all too easy to do something that angered one parent or the other. I lived in fear of the spankings that followed any incursion, no matter how inconsequential. The discord, the anger, was often put aside when we were expecting the arrival of an imaginary being.

            Perhaps this is why I clung to belief long after my peers. I wanted peace, comfort and joy, just like in many a Christmas song.

Faith: a Personal Definition

One aspect of faith is the belief in the inherent goodness of humanity.  It may be a naïve way of thinking, especially considering these troubled times.  It may be a bit misplaced in terms of focus considering the quantity of murders, robberies, beatings, and home invasions that take place every day.  However, if we cannot believe that the bulk of those traveling through life with us do so with goodness as a driving force, then we cannot live as faith-filled people. 

Back when I was still teaching something occurred at my high school that challenged my faith in humanity.  An article appeared in the school newspaper referring to a group of students as “Tard Kart.”  In itself, the label does not seem offensive.  However, the members of this group described themselves as crazy misfits who were not accepted by the school population at large.  Hence, to them, “Tard” was a derivative of the word retard.  Kart referred to the food carts which were staffed by Special Education students, the connection, to me, was quite obvious.

Believing that it was a simple mistake, I contacted the teacher who oversaw the Journalism students.  The teacher found nothing offensive about the inclusion of the name in the article.  When I asked her what she would do if a group called themselves “Spics” or “Wops.” Would she print that?  Of course not, she said, as those are ethnic slurs.

The teacher herself had been subjected to ethnic slurs over her entire teaching career.  She had been found crying, many times, over the cruelty of students who mimicked her accent and who left insults on the white board in her classroom.  One would think that if anyone would be sensitive to negative stereotypes, it would be she.

Earlier in the same week a student was attacked outside my classroom.  He was a relatively small freshman compared to others in his class. When I heard loud thumps outside my room, I went outside to see what was happening. My student was on the floor curled up in a fetal position, holding his groin area.  Large tears coursed down his cheeks.  He was unable to speak or move for more than thirty minutes. When I found out what has happened, I was horrified that two very large seniors had slammed the smaller boy against the wall and kicked him when he was down.

I believe that it was a prank that got out of control.  Yes, the students involved tended to be aggressive, defiant, and general malcontents.  Yes, they were not on track to graduate in June.  Even so, my faith tells me that this “beating” was not a planned act of violence, but rather an opportunistic reaction.

In my seventy-one years of life, I have not only witnessed, but also been a victim of comparable events.  As an abused child, I grew up in an environment that was not conducive to the development of faith.  It’s hard to believe in a God that allows physical beatings, verbal harassment, and emotional debasement.  I prayed, every day, for salvation.  My prayers went unanswered, or so I thought.

It was not until I went on a trip to the mountains of southern California with a Catholic youth group from my university that I understood faith.  Looking at the towering mountains and walking amid the amazingly tall trees, I realized that there is a God who loves the world so much that He gave us places of solitude and introspection. 

God does not always our wishes for He knows that we need to be forged by our experiences.  We may not want to walk our given path, but we have to believe that the journey somehow leads us to a clearer understanding of who we are meant to be.

When I stood in that forest I knew that I was not the horrible child that my parents saw.  Faith allowed me to witness the goodness inside myself, the goodness inside my parents, and the goodness in those sharing the moment with me.  It sounds like a cliché, but I truly felt a golden glow spreading through my body.  That glow was faith.

Since that day, my faith has been my rock.  It gives me the strength to transcend the travails of daily life.  It opens my eyes to the good intentions of others and allows me to feel generosity of spirit.  When disheartening or disturbing events rise forth, it is through faith that I am able to process what is happening.

I do believe that all humans are capable of living lives ruled by basic tenets of kindness and generosity of spirit.  Even when the news is filled with stories of turbulence, I do not let my belief waver.  That is my belief in the goodness of humanity. That is my faith.

Why do we Pray?

            If you believe that God is in control, what’s the point in praying? Some people think that the purpose is to leverage from God a favor for themselves or others. This is a recipe for disappointment for God isn’t a poker game where chips are played to get something in exchange.

            However, if you see prayer as an ongoing conversation with God, you might discover that He has reasons for what He does and that He blesses you in uncountable ways.

            We live in a chaotic world. All around us things happen that we have no control over that affect our lives. Many live in dangerous situations where bombs may fall, bullets may fly, fires may rage and hurricanes may destroy. All of these are out of our hands which is a cause for anxiety. God might not be able to stop the bombs and bullets and fires and winds, but He can offer peace of mind.

            God might not do what you want Him to do at the time that you ask Him to act. For example, if praying for a cure for cancer, it might not happen within your lifetime. However, the cure might come along thanks to research and discovery.

            Doubters of the power of prayer might argue that there’s no reason to pray because God already knows what’s going to happen. For example, let’s say you’ve planned an outdoor birthday party for your child, complete with a giant bouncy house. Guests will gather in the backyard for a picnic buffet. Good weather is a must: not too hot, not too cold, not too windy and definitely no rain.

Should you ask God for these things? Why not, for you never know what He’s thinking. He might believe that an indoor gathering is more intimate or that renting a bouncy house is too extravagant considering your finances. Maybe the earth is desperately in need of a good soaking in order to reduce fire danger in your area. But, just because we don’t know God’s response doesn’t mean we can’t pray for the things that will bring us the most joy.

            Some people pray to thank God for blessings in their lives. That’s what I do. Every day I thank Him for my wonderful husband, my three awesome adult kids and my seven talented grandchildren. I thank Him for financial security, for relative good health, for our home and the safe environment in which we live. I thank Him for the sacrifices He made and the patient way He showed us to believe.

            When our hearts are burdened, we might not be able to hear God. With thoughts swirling through our minds there’s no space for God to intervene, to stick in a few words of comfort.

            If we consider our relationship with God as a conversational one, then we have to be prepared to hear. When we offer our thoughts and concerns to Him, we must trust that He is listening. Patience is the next step, for God is busy and cannot always quickly respond. Building that connection with God takes time. This is why we should pray as often as possible. God may be listening as we barrel down the freeway or pull laundry out of the washing machine. He might be present as we mow the lawn or paint a child’s bedroom.

            Talking to God is like talking with a friend. When the friend speaks we listen. Through those conversations we grow closer together. So it is with God. The more we talk, the more we listen, the stronger the relationship.

            Believers who take delight in their relationship with God, who look forward to those times when they can open their hearts and enjoy being in His presence, are often surprised by the blessings He bestows. His voice might not come in words, but in a gentle touch. He might appear in the grateful eyes of an elderly man that you help with his groceries. He might kiss your cheek as lightly as a feather, but most likely He won’t scream at you from the heavens.

            We pray because Jesus prayed. I am not a Biblical expert so I cannot cite chapter and verse, but I know that He prayed with the woman at the well, at the marriage feast, over the meager loaves and fishes and as He was dying on the cross. If Jesus, the Son of God prayed, maybe we should follow His example.

            You pray because you understand that you are not the almighty, that you cannot do everything on your own. You need help, sometimes in the form of friendly neighbors who help repair a fence, a fellow traveler who stops to replace your tire or the minister who lays his hands on your head and bestows a blessing.

            Prayer is a way of surrendering control over to someone else. We’ve been raised to believe that we are in charge of our destiny and only we can take the steps to accomplish our dreams. Insert God into that equation when you accept that you need Him in the driver’s seat. You need outside help that only He can offer.

            Prayer is not simply talking to the ceiling even though it might appear to others that that’s what you’re doing. Often when we pray we do lift our eyes heavenward because we believe that God is up there, somewhere. Looking up is a way of centering ourselves, of giving us a place to send our needs, hopes and thanks. It’s a way of involving God in our lives so that the connection is maintained.

            Just as we use the phone to text and the computer to chat and share photos, prayer is just another way to reach out in our busy lives. We know that God is aware of what’s happening in our lives, but He wants to hear it from you.

            God knows what He wants to accomplish in the world and in each of our lives. He might be waiting for you to turn to Him or He might be waiting for the right moment to act. Whichever is true, He might be inspired to hurry things up when He hears us speaking to Him. Not demanding, but whispering. Not whining, but giving thanks.

            Don’t be afraid to pray. There are written prayers that many have memorized and those are good. But what if you are not one of those people? Can you still pray and will God listen when you don’t use the prescribed words? Of course.

Prayer is one of the most active things you can do for it requires you to do something, even if it’s a tiny step. Prayer may feel like hard work, but it isn’t. Just like learning to ride a bike, prayer takes practice. Even spending just a few minutes each day allows you to build that relationship with God.

Because there are no rules about how often or how long you must pray, establish your own routines. Maybe after a harrowing drive through traffic, you give a quick thanks for getting you to your destination without incident. Perhaps you’ve tried a new recipe and it doesn’t look like the picture. Offer a prayer that it tastes okay and you might be surprised when your family loves it. Just when it’s time to move the clothes into the dryer, the power goes out. When you offer a prayer for help, God reminds you that you can string a line outside.

Prayer can be a form of praise, it can be an offer of thanksgiving, or it can be asking for forgiveness. Prayer can be devotional, meaning that it is a formal recitation from the Bible or a prayer book, or it can be free-flowing, coming as connected thoughts or random bits of praise, supplication or expressions of need.

Prayer can also be an inspiration for action.  It could get you walking, hiking, dancing, and singing. Prayer might spur you to volunteer to build something, to run for a charity, to donate time, goods or money for those in need.

Because prayer can take place in many forms, in many places, for many different reasons, it has no boundaries. We pray because it feels good to do so. We pray because it fills a need. We pray because it connects us to God.

The reasons we pray are endless, but most importantly we pray because it gives us something in return.

Reflections on Faith

My parents were Catholics when convenient. They baptized us as infants because it was expected and demanded by family. Going to church, however, didn’t begin until it was time to enroll my older brother in Catholic elementary school. The parish checked tithing records and saw that my parents didn’t donate regularly. Once they established a pattern, then my brother could attend.

I enrolled a year later, no questions asked.

School began with daily mass. Prayer occurred at regular intervals. Massive school-wide processions took place with regularity, rain, snow or shine. Students were disciplined with ruler, clicker, social isolation and words. We studied the saints and wrote countless reports about our favorites. All art was related to church and church teachings. No frivolous country scenes. Only crucifixions or stained-glass windows.

We read the bible, not contemporary literature except for the occasional Dick and Jane and see Spot run. We were conditioned to believe that church was our life now and in the future. Every year priests and nuns and missionaries spoke to our entire school about a life of service.

Throughout all these years I often attended Sunday Mass, but only if there wasn’t an excuse to skip it. It crops had to be planted or harvested, no Mass. If it was too snowy, icy or rainy, no Mass. Too hot? No Mass. Memorial Day? No Mass only endless visits from one cemetery to another. Relatives to visit? Well, you get the picture.

My parents made sure we received our first Communion. We processed in with our classes, hands neatly folded with a white prayer book nestled between and a white plastic rosary draped over the tips of our fingers. My brother got by with a white school shirt but I was stuffed into a stiff Communion dress and a tight-fitting veil pinching my puffy cheeks.

Once that milestone was accomplished we once again attended Mass when my dad saw fit. Interestingly enough, ten cents out of the quarter weekly allowance was handed back to my dad as our donation to the church we never attended.

My brother and I stayed at the Catholic school through Confirmation. My teacher, a strict nun, made sure I understood that this sacrament sealed my commitment to a life of service to God and church. I took it quite seriously. When the annual recruitment took place, I was ready to sign up for a monastic life of solitude and prayer. I envisioned myself in a place of peace, a place of reflection, a place devoid of the tension which was my home life. My parents wouldn’t let me go.

When we moved to California in 1964 my dad began his search for the fastest mass in town. He took us over the hills to Half Moon Bay and Pacifica where the priests spoke of fire and brimstone, damnation of everlasting hell. They terrified me.

We tried churches in San Mateo and Burlingame. We didn’t fit in those well-to-do parishes due to our extreme poverty. He found one in San Bruno that he liked until the priest asked for regular donations. There were two in South San Francisco:  one which was supposed to be our assigned parish and the other, a tiny one, with a thirty-minute mass. That’s the one my dad chose. In and out, over and done.

When away at college I discovered the Neumann Center, a tiny chapel on campus with a welcoming atmosphere. The music was contemporary with drums, guitars, keyboard and cymbals. Dancing in the aisles. Hallelujahs and lots of praise be to God. I fit in.

My husband grew up in a family that attended mass faithfully regardless of whether even when they had to sludge to church through downpours.  Going to church was part of who he was. It influenced his thinking, his behavior, his attitude toward others.

His beliefs built our family into who we are today. If we were camping, he found a church. Skiing? Church. Traveling? Right, church. Sometimes we drove for miles to find a church, but we got there nevertheless.

For almost 46 years Sunday Mass has been an integral part of our relationship. In fact, when I travel on my own, I seek out church and attend.

Not being able to attend due to the coronavirus takes me back to my childhood days of any excuse to miss going to Mass. Except for one caveat: this isn’t voluntary, but enforced.

We found a Mass on television, which is a nice substitute, but there’s a huge difference between sitting in your family room and being in the church building. There are stained glass windows in the TV church and statues and the readings and the service, but the lack of physical presence takes you away from the reverence, the spirituality.

Today things changed for me. I was asked to be the lector for today’s Sunday Mass. I put on a dress and necklace. Studied my readings. Made sure my hair was neatly combed. Put on my mask when I entered the church. Three others were there: the parish secretary, the parish office manager and the choir director. The church felt hollow. Voices echoed.

But the pews were there. Candles, flowers, statues, stained glass windows, all the things that identify that church as mine. When the priest entered and the service began I was filled with awe. Several times my eyes filled with tears. Singing with the director took me back to a few weeks ago when I’d be standing with five other choir members, lifting our voices in praise. Now there was just two of us.

The priest shared a time when he had strayed from God and how, when the call came, how powerful it was. His words carried me back to  my childhood when it wasn’t me that chose to stray, but circumstances beyond my control, and how powerful it was when I found God in my late teens. He spoke for all of us, reminding us to talk to Jesus.

Next Sunday we’ll watch the television Mass once again. It won’t be the same, but I’ll share the experience with my husband, the man who taught me that attending church was a powerful connection to our faith in God.

In these times we need reminders that there is someone up there, someone ready to listen when we’re ready to pray.